As the word ‘humanism’ suggests, it is an approach to moral reasoning that affirms human dignity. The term Humanism is here understood according to the definition of The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as ‘the Philosophy which recognizes the value or dignity of man and makes him the measure of all things…’ Indeed it is the merit of this approach that it attempts to do justice to the dignity and worth of the human being or person (terms which are here used interchangeably).
Now Humanism, as it is characteristically believed or unconsciously lived out, views the value or dignity of man (conceived merely as a psychophysical organism) as the highest principle of moral action. Despite its merits, this system of philosophy is thus subject to certain demerits: it effectively denies the existence of God and the soul contrary to reason. Consequently it is unable to yield a deep solution to the meaning of life, or to offer any adequate foundation for objective morality or for the objective dignity and worth of the human being. (We recall indeed that the three forms of dignity of the person distinguished in chapter two are all determined by the person’s relation to God.) For these reasons humanism is, according to the criteria for moral systems given at the end of chapter one, defective, except where the term is used in a different sense to describe those philosophical or religious systems which respect the dignity of man and derive it ultimately from God. The Catholic Faith can par excellence be described as humanist in this modified sense in that it is centred on a Christ, Who in possessing both a human and a divine nature is truly human while at the same time truly Divine.
It will however be appropriate to examine abortion in the light of humanism as it is normally understood since this attitude is widely held, and since in the light of (at least one form of) humanism, abortion may be shown to be wrong even without reference to the existence of God or of the soul. Let us distinguish between two forms of humanism here: a strong form and a weak form.
1. Strong Humanism
The strong humanist argues that abortion is wrong by reference to the objective dignity and worth of the person. He derives personhood not from the spiritual soul, the existence of which he denies, but from the essence of physical humanity, namely the distinctively human physical organism that comes into existence at conception (as referred to above). Since this physical organism has a peculiar dignity, it must be respected as such, and therefore it is wrong to destroy it (at least while it is in a state of innocence).
2. Weak Humanism
Now according to the arguments in the first section of this chapter and to the strong form of humanism outlined above, the human being or person is the living being with a human genetic structure who comes into existence at conception, who is unchanged in his essential nature from conception until death. The weak form of humanism differs from these theories in understanding the human being or person as the living being of the (biological) human type that has the physical and (particularly) mental characteristics of a born human being – characteristics that will include the organs, limbs, mental functionings, and appearance. It is to the human being understood in this sense that this theory ascribes dignity and therefore also rights, including the right to life.
What position does weak humanism adopt on abortion? To answer this question, we must first ask when the unborn assumes the characteristics of a born human being, when in other words it attains maturity. Since maturity involves a gradual process, there can be no definitive answer to this question; however the unborn may perhaps be recognised as mature at least by the second month from conception, at the beginning of the foetal stage, for by this stage, as noted in the previous chapter, ‘everything is now present that will be found in a fully developed adult’ – the brain functions, the eyes are sensitive to light, even the fingers and toes are clearly defined.
It is indeed arguable that the unborn attains some degree of maturity as early as one month from conception for by this stage he already resembles a born human being rather than any other physical organism and hence may be said by the weak humanist to be a human being and to possess a corresponding dignity. It is arguable that abortion is wrong as early as this stage, then, but the same may not be said of the earliest period of pregnancy. Indeed it is typically the weak humanist who attempts to justify abortion during this earliest period with the remark quoted above: ‘I do not believe that that is a person’.
This second form of humanism is subject to the general defects of humanism listed above and to the defect of shallowness in that it determines humanity not according to the essence of physical humanity, as strong humanism determines it, but according to its more familiar accidents, namely, as said above, the physical and (particularly) mental characteristics of a born human person.
Let us criticize weak humanism in more detail not on external grounds, by reference to God, the spiritual soul, and the natural law, but on internal grounds, on its own terms. Weak humanism may in fact be criticized in more detail with regard to the criterion by which it establishes personhood, and by which it establishes the dignity of the person. It may also be criticized with regard to the possibility that the human being, and the dignity proper to him come into existence at conception.
Let us assess certain considerations that may lead the weak humanist to suppose that the human being or person comes into existence at the onset of maturity, let us say at the beginning of the foetal stage.
The first consideration is the difficulty of applying the terms ‘human being’ and ‘person’ to the embryo – particularly at the cell-like stage. In reply it may be said that this difficulty does not derive from the fact that maturity is essential to humanity or personhood, but it derives from the fact that these terms are commonly used of the born, the term ‘human being’ typically relating to the physical characteristics of the born, and the term ‘person’ typically relating to the mental and moral characteristics of the born. It is however clear that these terms may felicitously be applied to the unborn if they are understood as referring essentially to the living physical being of a human type.
The second consideration is that the beginning of the foetal stage marks a significant change of appearance and powers in the being in question. In reply, the terms ‘human being’ and ‘person’ are ontological terms. If one seeks to apply them on the basis of a change, the change must be an ontological or more technically a ‘substantial’ change. The change of appearance and powers does not represent a substantial change, therefore it cannot mark the coming into existence of a human being or person. If by contrast the Aristotelian – scholastic thesis had been correct that the spiritual soul superseded the sensitive soul, which in its turn superseded the vegetative soul, the acquisition of human appearance and powers could arguably mark an ontological change, and so mark the coming into existence of a human being or person.
The third consideration is that the beginning of the foetal stage marks an actualization of characteristics that were previously only potential. Yet since, as noted above, ‘human being’ and ‘person’ are ontological terms, this actualization could only mark the coming into existence of a human being or person if it represented an ontological (or substantial) difference in the being in question. There seems, however, no ground for holding this. Rather it would appear that the immature unborn and the mature unborn are ontologically the same; they are different only in the sense that the characteristics of the former are potential and the characteristics of the latter are actual. In illustration, a lily bud is ontologically the same, is of the same order, as a lily. It differs from a lily only in the sense that its characteristics are not yet actualized.
The fourth consideration is that the beginning of the foetal stage marks the assumption of functional characteristics. In reply it should be said that functional characteristics constitute what it is to be a human being or person only on a functionalist, and ultimately hedonistic, understanding of the human being or person, and not on a humanist understanding.
In conclusion, none of these considerations, individually or conjointly, provide grounds for establishing that the human being or person comes into existence at the onset of maturity. Rather the genetic structure provides grounds for establishing that the human being or person comes into existence at conception, as is maintained by the strong humanist. At an early stage (for example in the first week of pregnancy) he is less developed than he is at a later stage (for example in the last week of pregnancy); he has a different appearance (a cell-like appearance) than he has at a later stage (a mature human appearance); and he lacks the capacities that he will possess at a later stage; but he is not for these reasons a being of a different order from a human being (for instance an animal): he is less developed than a human being at a later stage, but not therefore less of a human being.
A further argument may be advanced at this stage in the light of a fuller understanding of the nature of the human being. This is a temporal argument for the existence of the human being from conception from the standpoint of the weak humanist, which is comparable to the temporal argument for the existence of the human being from the Catholic standpoint above.
Consider any substance that exists over time: existence over time, or temporal extension, is one of its objective properties as a substance. Therefore to consider it in its temporal extension permits one to understand it more fully than to consider it at a particular moment. In illustration: imagine a pencil that was made yesterday and will be destroyed tomorrow. Its temporal extension over two days is one of its objective properties. To consider it in this way permits one to understand it more fully than to consider it simply as it exists at the present moment.
Now the temporal extension of a thing is defined by criteria of unity and identity over time. The unity and identity of the pencil, the fact that it is one and the same pencil from yesterday until tomorrow defines its temporal extension from yesterday until tomorrow. The fact that it is not one and the same pencil as the wood and lead from which it was made yesterday and as the powder into which, let us imagine, it will be ground tomorrow determine that it was not temporarily extended (as a pencil) before yesterday nor will it be so after tomorrow.
Let us turn to the human being. The human being exists over time and has temporal extension, so to consider him in his temporal extension permits one to understand him more fully than to consider him at a particular moment. His temporal extension is defined by his unity and identity over time. The weak humanist would claim that his unity and identity over time extends from the stage at which he assumes the appearance and powers of a mature human being until his death. This claim however, as has been argued above, has nothing to recommend it logically. Rather it would appear that the unity and identity of a human being over time extends from conception to death, because at conception there comes into existence a being with a particularly human genetic code or ‘genome’ who develops organically and in an unbroken continuum from this point until death.
Such reflections would appear to be sufficient to show that from conception until death there exists an entity which possesses unity and identity over time, that there exists one life, one living being, which is moreover a living being of a human type, namely a human being. This conclusion has been reached not merely by reference to particular physical characteristics, but also by reference to temporal extension. The human being is understood (that is to say understood in the minimalist sense accepted by the weak humanists) not merely as the being with a human genetic code, but as the being with a human genetic code that extends from the embryonic, to the foetal, to the infant stages, to the stage of childhood, adulthood, and old age. Having criticized weak humanism with regard to its criterion for establishing the existence of the human being, let us proceed to criticize it with regard to its criterion for establishing the dignity of the human being.
Now the humanist by definition ascribes dignity to humanity: his criterion for humanity and his criterion for dignity are one and the same. The four considerations that have been listed above in relation to maturity can no more serve as grounds for ascribing dignity than they have been able to serve as grounds for ascribing humanity. Rather, just as the human genetic structure is the only factor which may properly serve as the humanist criterion for humanity, so it is the only factor which may properly serve as the humanist criterion for dignity.
A particular criticism of the claim that maturity determines dignity may be made as follows: the weak humanist hold that it is maturity, it is the possession of certain characteristics in an actual form that gives the unborn his dignity. But what reason is there to suppose that it is the actualization of these characteristics which gives the unborn his dignity? It is surely not the actualisation of these properties, but the possession of these properties (even in a virtual form on account of a potentiality), that gives the unborn his particular excellence. The unborn possesses these properties prior to maturity, in fact from conception, albeit in a potential form. In illustration of this argument: if a lily is to be prized, then a lily bud is to be prized; if a great opera singer is to be prized, then a student with the potential to become a great opera singer is to be prized.
Even if the immature unborn possessed a lesser dignity than the mature unborn, it would seem on the above analysis to possess a dignity of the same order. Consequently if the dignity of the latter entailed a right to life, then it would seem reasonable that the dignity of the former entailed a right to life as well. At the very least we could say with certainty that there would be no grounds for denying the former the right to life.
A final criticism of weak humanism concerns the possibility that the person and the dignity of the person come into existence at conception, whether with the coming into existence of the living being with a human genetic code or with a human genetic code conjoined with a spiritual soul (as has been discussed in the first section of this chapter). This is an irrefutable possibility. It is an irrefutable possibility in other words that the embryo is a person and has a dignity which entails the right to life. It follows that to kill the embryo is to risk killing a person. As is stated in the passage from Evangelium Vitae quoted above: ‘What is at stake is so important’ that it makes such an action wrong.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.